Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cracker with a Conscience

Rewind to Friday the 24th.  

I've just finished my usual 4 to midnight shift at TJ's.  My friend Greg and I take the train together, as we often do, down to Columbus Circle.  We transfer to the uptown A, a ride which, at midnight on a Friday, can mean just about anything.  I'm usually prepared for good conversation at the least--and some guy puking in the corner, if it's one of those nights.  You never know.

The A is crowded with our New York neighbors, some of them tired after a long night of work, others just gearing up for a night on the town.  Greg and I stand in the center of our car and hold the pole.  I, at least, covet the happy feet of my fellow travelers with seats.  Seven hours of standing, walking, and hauling really do a number on this body, even at twenty-four.

Greg and I chat about music and movies and the upcoming Oscars, our usual post-work banter exalting the superior geekdom of independent films and music, namely New York's bevy of stellar singer-songwriters who scratch out a start playing in subways.

Sitting below me is a scraggly middle-aged man talking gibberish and invading the personal space of the people around him.  He's more than drunk.  This guy has to be strung-out on crack.  For a moment, he's creating a minor scene.  I get ready to step behind Greg if he gets too close because I have my suspicions about this less-than-coherent guy groping me, either by accident or on purpose.  Here we go.  But the man retreats into his own world again, simply mumbling from his seat.  All is well--or well enough, at least--on the A train.

And then I hear it: "Don't be gay!" 

What?  I try to register what I just heard.  That wasn't an off-handed exclamation; that was a verbal attack.  To my left, two clean-cut men are sitting together and talking.  They blink.  Sitting down the car and facing them is the man who just announced his bigotry for everyone with ears to hear.  

With Greg standing in front of me, the man is out of my line of sight.  White-knuckling the pole, I swing out past Greg's shoulder and eye the man.  "Excuse me? I think you need to watch what you say."  I spit each word at him, slow and clear, not to be mistaken.  

He laughs.  Buttoned-up and seemingly sober, he is not at all what I expected: a loud-mouthed punk kid who's had a few too many.  This man is lucid, self-satisfied, and cocky as hell.  He's got a girl on his arm and a posse of equally deluded friends guffawing right along with him.  Disgusted, I swing back to my spot in the center of the car, hoping it was enough to shut him up.  It's not.  

"Homos!"  He's not stopping.  I can't think about what's going to come out of his mouth next.  I check in with the couple to my left.  They smile at me.  I'd smile back, but I'm too furious to put on a bright face, even for them.  

The bully keeps throwing his punches, taunting the couple and congratulating himself on his remarkable wit and wisdom.  He's so smug I could puke.  Again, I swing out past Greg and stare the man down.  "Hey! You need to keep your opinions and your comments to yourself.  Some of my best friends are gay, so you can just shove it."  The last time I used that phrase, I was six, and I thought it meant "shut up"--or something equally benign.  Not so after a strong reprimand from Mom.  But I know even Mom would cheer me on tonight.  

But what about everyone else?  I'm in too much of a blind rage to take in much else on the train.  Are people reacting?  Doesn't anybody else have a shred of sympathy?  Or a conscience?  Not one other person speaks up.  

I shake out the fist I've been making and quip sarcastically, "Remind me, Greg, what century are we in? Is this  really 2012?" 

"It's like being back in the schoolyard," one of the couple adds.    

"No," Greg interjects, "I think we've devolved to the paleolithic era."

No one can argue that point.  We stand in silence.  The bully sees his window of opportunity and segues from the gay couple to me.  "Polly wanna cracker?"  He cackles and squawks, imitating a parrot.  It takes a minute for me to register what he means.  "Hey, little cracker.  Polly wanna cracker?  Huh?  Polly wanna cracker?"  

Cracker.  Because I'm white.  

I look to Greg, who's steady and understanding.  "Don't let them get to you."  But I can't really help it.  I stare at my shoes, biting my lip and still white-knuckling the pole.  

One of the men I spoke up for reassures me, "You can't let him win.  Just let it go.  You know you're the bigger person, anyway."  

It's not enough to stamp out the fire in my belly.  It literally burns, and I'm so furious I'm shaking all over.  Hot, angry tears leak out the corners of my eyes as I try to keep it together.  

"Harlem-bound A train!" shouts the bully.  "Last stop 116th street!"  He keeps it up for a few more blocks, getting louder and more indignant by the minute.  "Cracker's on the wrong train!  Harlem-bound A train.  Last stop 125th street!  Get off the train, cracker!"  

"That's right!" I say, mostly to myself.  "This cracker's going home to Harlem.  And I'm not getting off until 135th!  Snow bunny in Harlem, God forbid!"  I'm at my wit's end. 

But the guy hasn't run out of ammo yet.  "You're on the wrong train, little cracker!  Get off at the next stop and take the train downtown.  And don't forget to take those two with you," he continues, indicating the gay couple.  "Make sure they get off at West 4th."  Greenwich Village.  Of course.

I can't believe it. The guy just won't shut up.

He keeps up his act, throwing the three of us around, and making a few stray comments about others on the train, including the crack junkie.

Greg checks in with me, offering to walk me off the train back to my apartment.  "No, thanks.  I should be fine.  As longs as those fools don't follow me off the train."  

Once we hit 135th, I steal a glance behind Greg to make sure they're all still sitting.  "Now's your break," he tells me, and I dart off the train without looking back. 


My friends have been so supportive in their responses to what went on that night.  But much as I appreciate their support, I want to make something very clear: what I did and said was not particularly brave or courageous.  If it is inspiring to you, great.  If you're proud of me, fine.  But I was just being a decent human being.  Call it a conscience.  Call it a backbone.  Call it whatever you like, but as a Christian, I try to live by Micah 6:8: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."  Justice was not being done, so I spoke up.  Anything less, and I'd have called myself a hypocrite.

The thing that breaks my heart is that if I hadn't done something to defend that couple, I don't think anyone else on that train would have.  And let's be real.  This is definitely not the first time they've been harassed, and it probably won't be the last.  

It should not "take guts" to do what I did.  But if it does, I hope the next girl on the next train has guts enough to open her mouth, too.